Interview: Hanging Out In The Swordfish Islands With Jacob Hurst

by Anton Kromoff

Hello and welcome to the table.

As some of you recall I reviewed my personal favorite notebook the Worldbuilder’s Notebook from Swordfish Islands and now I am getting a chance to sit down and talk to the publisher at Swordfish Islands himself Jacob Hurst. You can find all the cool stuff you see pictured and more of Jacob’s work over at Swordfish Islands and please go check out @vyderac on Twitter and give him a follow.

Anton: Jacob, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Let’s dive right into it as I am excited to get to talk to you. How long have you been in the tabletop role-playing space?

Jacob: Working in the space? Since 2016. Playing, since the 5th grade.

Anton: Ha! 5th grade. That is amazing. I myself have been playing since grade school, so it feels good to know a fellow gamer who has been at it as long. Now are you currently playing in any regular campaigns or do you have a regular play group you play with?

Jacob: I’ve been playing every Tuesday night with a regular group since… 2018/2019. We went to a birthday party for my son’s best friend from daycare and discovered that not only did his dad play D&D, he had a whole 3d printed map of the Yawning Portal. He invited me to join the next game session, and so far they haven’t kicked me out!

Anton: I have always said it is hard to make friends as an adult. My wife says that is part of the reason I got into gaming journalism just so I had people to talk to about gaming outside my weekly party. So that is the kind of story that warms my heart. Aside from being a regular player, you are also a writer, layout artist, and tabletop game publisher… you do so much. Is this your full-time occupation, or do you somehow have time to do yet another thing on top of all this?

Jacob: In 2016 I quit my job because my wife got a much better one across the state. I took care of my son and worked on finishing up Hot Springs Island. The Kickstarter launched in 2017 and it’s been successful enough to keep me at least pretending it’s a full time occupation. The real full time occupation has been raising my kids, but in August they’ll both be in elementary school full time. Theoretically, it should be easier to write without my “helpers”, but we’ll see!

Anton: I am not sure where you find the time to do this all and still sit down and talk with me but I sure do appreciate it. I want to talk a little bit about Zines as I always feel that in a world of $60 to $100 full colored hundreds of pages tomes, the Zines of the TTRPG space often get overlooked. Swordfish Islands has a few absolute tressures including Beyond the Borderlands, The Waking of Willoby Hall, Orcs!, and while I have not read it yet The Frost Spire. Why in a world of massive productions are Zines such an important focus as well?

Jacob: I think zines are a very interesting space. Some of those that you listed I published for other people (Alex Damaceno: Borderlands, Ben Milton: Willowby, Mike Evans: Orcs!). In some cases I helped with editing or ran/fulfilled a Kickstarter for them, but ultimately they’re their works. I just helped get it onto paper. I began to realize, with the pace of production on Swordfish Islands, that I couldn’t make it a fulltime gig only releasing my own content. I’ve found a good printer here in San Antonio where I can do high quality digital printing, meaning I can release these zines in small runs and batches. We can print 50 copies and see how it goes.

If they sell, we print more. If they don’t, we’re not stuck with a garage full of boxes of books. Zines are a great experimental platform because of this. We can try experimental content or new creators where we can be super flexible with everything. Before ever releasing any Swordfish Islands books I made zines (Toxic Elven Smut, The Lapis Observatory, Night Axe). I printed and bound those myself and foiled the covers, and people seemed to really dig it, so I’ve kept it going. It’s also very fun, almost freeing to make a zine. It’s a small thing that you can just get finished and release.

The commitment level is different when you’re doing an offset print run of books vs a zine. The Frost Spire was written as a challenge for Bryce Lynch over at the Ten Foot Pole blog. He held a contest to make a complete adventure, in 9 pages, and involving a moving tower in the ocean, but it had to be completed in 2 weeks. I’d been feeling like I was in a writing funk, so I jumped on the contest (and won!), but it was such a refreshing challenge to say “Ok, I have two weeks to make a whole, useful thing.”. I was so happy with how it turned out (before the results of the contest were ever announced) that I reached out to an artist I’d been following on Instagram to see if they’d be down to do some illustrations.

Anton: Because your work is so versatile this may be a hard one to answer as I know I go back and forth myself but do you prefer more short-form publications like Zines and Micro Adventures or are you a fan of the bigger more heavily produced gaming books?

Jacob: I’ve found that at conventions when zines and books are sitting on the table, people completely ignore the zines and go straight for the hardback books. So I love zines, and think they’re a good way to experiment, work with new people, and shake the rust off your creativity, but I think they’re best as a stepping stone to full on books. Also, to put on my vile capitalist hat, there’s a bad meme in the RPG scene that says RPG players are cheap and won’t spend money.

I don’t believe that to be true, or at least I haven’t found that to be true. I think the challenge is getting a person to open their wallet in the first place, and if you can convince them to do that, they seem just as willing to spend $10 as they are $60. Of course, you’ve got to show the value before you ever talk price, but if you’re spending 5 minutes selling a $5 zine, when you could be spending 5 minutes selling a $60 book you’re missing out. The zines and the books both definitely have their place, and the fulfill different needs both as a creator, and as a customer.

Anton: As a writer when putting together a project of any length what is your process for note taking and eventually fleshing out a manuscript? 

Jacob: It’s a mess? Lol. I write on paper. I find it does a great job of enabling me to remember what I’ve written. I then let it sit a while, then type it up. I then print it all out and hit it hard with a red pen. Then I kind of loop through this. That said, Swordfish Islands is a collaboration with me, Donnie and Evan. We each have our writing strengths, and our process together is to just talk through stuff, while I type notes (and as many verbatim conversation snippets as I can). I type everything in Sublime Text because it’s an amazing program with no extraneous bullshit. I also like using OneNote and Trello to organize things digitally.

For Marlo’s that we’re working on now, we’ve got a Trello board. Each section of the book has a card, and we can add images and writing to that card so everything about the albino crocodile Walter lives on one card. As the writing goes from notes to polished writing to layout, it can still all live in the same place so we can all reference it. Evan likes to use Google Docs ‘cause he uses it all the time at work, so we’re able to put links to gDocs in Trello and the cards become our point of reference to all the various stuff that’s out there. I’ve experimented with using git for version control of the writing, and I like it, and it’s potential, but it’s still not a habit for me yet. Maybe one day.

Anton: Do you prefer to work in silence or is there a media you enjoy while you are writing?

Jacob: Silence. I can’t write seriously if I’ve got music or much noise really. That said, pre-pandemic I discovered that I really enjoy writing in coffee shops. I don’t know why, but the low background drone works well for me. I also discovered that if I get hit with some writers block, I can often break through it by taking time to write about the things that are happening around me. Covid took me away from that, and I think I may start making more forays out to places like that once the kids are in school full time.

Anton: Does that change when you are doing layouts?

Jacob: Yes… until I have to start really thinking about how the layout is going to work. If it’s straight forward copy/pasting then sure I can have my tunes on, but once I hit a problem I’ve got to shut everything up. My musical tastes are literally all over the place. Today I was boxing up Kickstarter rewards for my Jack Vance Wyst: Alastor 1716 project. I started out the day listening to some “Euphoric and Uplifting Trance” live stream on YouTube, then by the end of the day I was listening to the Doom 2016 sound track. I’ve also been obsessed with “slowed and reverb” pop songs recently, and then of course Metallica’s Ride the Lightning or Gli Incogniti’s Vivaldi is always just a click away. I don’t know!

Anton: What advice would you give to aspiring creators in the tabletop space?

Jacob: Adventure writing is first and foremost technical writing. Read Bryce Lynch’s Ten Foot Pole blog. He’s read and reviewed thousands of adventures. He’s seen it all and knows what he’s talking about. Yes, you can write up a whole campaign on the back of a napkin in a bar while shooting the shit with your friends. And yes, you can run it from those notes. But the thing is, you know what all your personal assumptions are. If you want to turn that into a full fledged module, you’ve got to work hard to figure out what your assumptions are, and how to communicate all that potential energy to a GM who hasn’t had any of your same life experiences. And you’ve got to do so in such a way that they can then communicate all that to 5 other people so they can try and imagine the same imaginary space. It’s hard, but it can be done, and it’s almost like magic when it works.

Anton: With so much spotlight finally on TTRPGs in pop culture and it being more than just “magic missile into the darkness” jokes, what are you seeing out there that really excites you?

Jacob: Honestly I don’t know. My approach has always been to solve my own problems and make the things I want made. A lot of times if I’m buying an RPG thing, I’m doing it because I want to support the creator. There’s a high likelihood I won’t read it, and part of me also doesn’t want to read other RPG work because I don’t want it to inadvertently influence my work. I do like that it’s been blowing up because it’s bringing so many new people, and there’s so much general interest. But at the same time, I don’t listen to/watch actual plays or things like Critical Role, so sometimes I feel pretty disconnected from “the scene” at large, but I’m very ok with that.

Anton: What is your favorite part of working in the tabletop role-playing space?

Jacob: The creative and helpful people.

Anton: Again thank you so much for taking all this time with me and chatting about your work. Before we go can you tell our audience where they can follow you and keep up with your work?

Jacob: @swordfishislands on Facebook and Instagram, @vyderac on Twitter.

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